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Adults Lead the Class in Anti-Gay Bigotry

January 02, 2003|Norah Vincent | Norah Vincent is a columnist in Yardley, Pa.

Puberty is humiliating enough as it is, but as a gay person I can tell you that when you throw sexual orientation into the mix, you get "Lord of the Flies" in the locker room.

Just ask Ashly Massey, 15, the Californian who last month filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Banning Unified School District.

The suit claims that the district violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution when it expelled Ashly from her eighth-grade gym class for being a lesbian.

Ashly says her ordeal started last year when another eighth-grader asked whether she was gay. She didn't answer, but classmates drew their own conclusions, shouting: "She's a lesbian!"

For the next two weeks, Ashly says, at the instructor's insistence, she sat out physical education class in the principal's office, where passing students pointed at her and jeered.

In many respects, Ashly's experience is mundane, which is what makes it so sad. Gay kids go through hell in junior high. That's when homophobia is born in earnest, a projection of psychosexual insecurity forged out of the torturous self-loathing that adolescence inspires in all of us.

And in this stage of life at least, girls are just as bad as boys, especially when it comes to phys ed. The acute embarrassment that pervades girls' locker rooms at this age is remarkable. Ask most women you know, and they'll tell you about the bizarre rituals that governed disrobing for gym class, a Byzantine procedure designed to shield your developing body from the scrutinizing gaze of your peers.

When I was in junior high, our morbid fear of nudity extended to forgoing showers even after sweating profusely. Even in college locker rooms, some women shower in their bathing suits.

Unfortunately, the Ashlys of the world are the ideal scapegoats for this monumental load of cultural shame.

How better to deflect pubescent angst than by turning gay baiting into a rite of passage? This can at least be understood, if not condoned, as the childish wrath of children. But by allegedly singling out Ashly for public punishment and ridicule, the adults involved in the Banning incident behaved just as childishly, which is what makes this case important.

Nothing could illustrate more perfectly what homophobia really is: adults acting like children, grown people still harboring all the same juvenile hysteria that they acquired in middle school and acting just as sophomorically, but now with authority.

As this case so clearly demonstrates, the path from eighth-grade gym class to institutionalized homophobia is a short and direct one, characterized at bottom by the classic heterosexual fear of being ogled by a "queer" in the shower -- the true motivating force behind purging gays from the military -- or of being propositioned by one in public, the usually imaginary justification for gay bashing.

What starts as prejudice ends as discrimination. Kids will always taunt their classmates for being different. That is a painful but necessary part of growing up and one that no one should seek to litigate out of existence by imposing hate-speech codes at school, as some gay activists have suggested. But when school administrators penalize gay students for being gay, that is outright discrimination and should be punishable by law.

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